Study Highlights The Challenges And Contributions Of Native Americans In Chicago Despite their role in the history of Chicago's geography and infrastructure, Native Americans persist today largely as an invisible minority.
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Study Highlights The Challenges And Contributions Of Native Americans In Chicago

Students walk on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. A new UIC report explains the economic challenges Native Americans face in Chicago, which represents the largest population of Native Americans in the Midwest. Marc Monaghan/WBEZ hide caption

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Marc Monaghan/WBEZ

When Angela Walden, a psychologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, first walked around downtown Chicago, she noticed a pattern: a carving on the DuSable Bridge depicting violence between Potawatomi people and white settlers; a Chicago Blackhawks store; and two statues of naked emaciated Native American men on horseback.

"I would love to see more representation of Native folks as modern people throughout the city," said Walden, who is enrolled in the Cherokee Nation and studies Chicago's Native American community. "It would be lovely if there were more broad efforts in these public spaces to represent Native people more as current citizens of the city and members of modern society."

Some academic colleagues expressed shock when she told them her area of research, Walden said. And she often encounters people who are unaware of the history of Native people in the city, which was a major site for government-driven efforts to move people from tribal lands to cities during the mid-20th century.

Walden contributed to a new study, released Friday by the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy (IRRPP) at UIC, that aims to show that Native Americans aren't relegated to the past or consigned to living on reservations.The report, "Adversity and Resiliency for Chicago's First: The State of Racial Justice for American Indian Chicagoans," is a mix of local data, myth busting and a rebuttal to common American Indian tropes.

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"Despite the fact that Native Americans remain the area's longest-term inhabitants, and despite their critical role in the history of Chicago's geography and infrastructure, Native Americans persist today largely as an invisible minority among major stakeholders in the city," the report said.

Currently, Native Americans in the U.S. are just as likely to live in urban spaces as the general population. Chicago — whose name is adopted from a local American Indian word — represents the largest population of Native Americans in the Midwest, according to the report. This region was originally inhabited by the Potawatomi, Odawa, Sauk, Ojibwe, Illinois, Kickapoo (Kiikaapoi), Miami (Myaamia), Mascouten, Wea, Delaware, Winnebago, Menominee, and Mesquakie. Today there are 22,000 Native Americans living in Chicago.

The report also notes:

  • Native Americans reside throughout Chicago, with the largest population in the Brighton Park and Lake View neighborhoods.
  • Half of Native Americans in Chicago are rent-burdened — paying more than 30% of their income in rent.
  • Native Americans are less likely than whites to have a college degree.
  • The wage increase associated with a college degree is lower for Native Americans than for all other race groups in Chicago.
  • Native Americans in Chicago have higher levels of unemployment and lower median household income than whites in the city.
  • Women's rates of incarceration in Illinois are higher for Native Americans than for women in all other racial or ethnic groups.

Historically, Uptown had been an area that many Native American residents called home, but in recent years, many of them have moved because they can no longer afford to live there due to the shrinkage of affordable housing there. During the 1990s, 27 agencies served the Native American community in Uptown, but now there are only 15 Native-serving organizations, the report said.

This is the latest report on racial justice from the IRRPP at UIC. Previous studies looked at black, white, Latino and Asian disparities. Focusing on Native Americans was the natural next focus.

"The story was hard to tell because the genocide, displacement and violence had been so successful. So it was a matter of trying to figure out the lack of good data," said IRRPP Director Amanda Lewis.

Walden said she has run into challenges with grant writing because it's been hard to find specific information about Native Americans. This report will help with her community-based psychology. And other groups say it will be an educational tool in fighting for resources.

Lewis said it was also important to tell a story that wasn't all doom and gloom and just about invisibility. The report talks about American Indians living and thriving in Chicago while highlighting local groups and institutions.

The report makes note of the harmful misrepresentations of Native Americans in popular culture ranging the appropriation of their images for sports mascots to the depictions of Native people as fierce savages in bloody confrontations or noble savages as wise stewards of the earth. Beyond this report, there's movement to counter those stereotypes.

This fall, UIC will offer in-state tuition to students who are members of any of the 573 tribal nations recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It's a move the university took because the group has low representation on college campuses around the country. In 2021, the Field Museum will reopen its renovated Native North American Hall to better tell stories without an outsider lens and with community engagement from the Native community.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ's Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on on Twitter @NatalieYMoore.

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